Doha is a popular transit hub connecting west to east, but, reportedly, some 71 percent of passengers going through Hamad International Airport never leave the airport. Yes, the airport is fabulous, filled with great art and plenty of things to do, but to miss out on seeing Doha and the desert country Qatar would be a real shame. In fact, Qatar Airways even offers extremely affordable stopover options to make your visit easier. So, next time you are connecting to a flight through Hamad International Airport, take the time to spend at least 24 hours outside of the airport. Here's how to do it.
As soon as you land, and depending on how long your flight was, either freshen up first in the airport swimming pool and showers in the Vitality Wellbeing & Fitness Centre, or, if you are refreshed and raring to go, head straight to the kiosk of Discover Qatar Tours in the airport's arrivals hall. Book a three-hour city bus tour to get a good overview of Doha. You will be driven along the Corniche, the horseshoe-shaped bay promenade, and stop at the dhow harbour. You will the fabulous museums along the way; pop into the Katara Cultural Village, and visit the man-made island The Pearl.
Alternatively, if it is not cities that float your boat, but you want to experience what a desert is all about, book a half-day desert safari. You will be driven in a four-wheel drive through the sand dunes in the south of Qatar, do some dune-bashing, i.e., driving at crazy angles across the sand dunes, and have a brief stop in a desert camp. You will understand why people love the emptiness and vastness of the desert, even if it is all just sand.
Either persuade the driver to let you get off earlier, or, upon returning to the airport, take a taxi to Souq Waqif, the traditional bazaar, and after a walkabout, have an early light lunch at the small Bandar Aden restaurant, a typical restaurant which serves local and Yemeni food, giving you a good idea of the local cuisine. Then take your time to meander and shop your way through the traditional market which offers a vast selection of weird and wonderful items, from spices to cooking utensils, from cloth to handicrafts. Look out for the Falcon Souq, where you can buy falcons and falconry items, and where regular displays take place, and the camel pen for an encounter with one of Arabia’s favorite animals.
Walk past the swirly tower of the Islamic Cultural Centre across to the Museum of Islamic Art, an impressive I.M. Pei building that houses Islamic art dating back more than 1,000 years. Take your time to explore the treasures inside and out, including the sculpture "7," by Richard Serra, and the lovely park with views of the Doha skyline.
As an alternative, turn right on the Corniche and head to the National Museum, which looks like a gigantic desert rose. You will learn about Qatar’s past and present in an interactive setting. If you prefer contemporary art over history, check if at the time of your visit there might be an exhibition on at Al Riwaq Gallery, just opposite the museum. Many top international artists regularly exhibit here, but there is no permanent collection.
Then go for a walk along the Doha Corniche, taking in the mix of old and new architecture, the views across the bay, and the bustle of locals and expatriates taking advantage of the four-mile walkway leading along the bay. Small juice stands and cafes are dotted along the promenade, giving you an excuse to stop and simply enjoy the views.
For a sunset drink you have several choices, but two favourites are at either end of the Corniche: Iris, a contemporary outdoor venue offering superb sunset views in a relaxed manner, or chic Nobu, the bar connected to the high-end restaurant, which has probably the best happy hour in town, and a rooftop setting with views across the bay. Both offer a snack and dining menu, depending whether you want to hunker down for a while, or if you want to move on for a proper dinner.
Alternatively, you could book yourself in for a dinner dhow cruise, with a buffet of Arabian food, great views and a relaxed tour through the Arabian Gulf. (But do note that there will be only soft-drinks available on board.)
In Doha, a lot of the shopping is done at night, often after dinner, and malls are open until 10 p.m., even later during Ramadan. Malls in Doha have been designed to provide an alternative to a day out in town, because a lot of the year it is simply too hot to walk about. So, the malls are sprawling, filled with recreation and entertainment spaces, shops and restaurants, sport facilities and cinemas, all under cover and air-conditioned.
You have plenty of choices, but one that ticks all boxes is the impressive Villagio Mall. Take a taxi to this Venice-themed mall that has a good mix of high street and high-end shops. Once done shopping, you may take a gondola ride through the canals past the faux-palazzi or even go ice-skating on the indoor ice rink.
Still not tired? Doha might not be the nightlife capital of the world, but it does have some decent bars and clubs, where you can have a drink, listen to some music or dance into the night before slowly thinking of catching your onward flight.